Two Wheel Drive
Hop aboard a Segway Personal Transporter for some environmentally friendly fun in downtown Poughkeepsie
Cruise Control: Jack White, the president of Segway of the Hudson Valley, leads a Segway tour alongside the Hudson River
Photograph by Frank Roberts
If you’re someone who shies away from attention, you may want to avoid taking the new two-hour Segway Tour around Poughkeepsie. Because as you cruise past the boathouses on the Hudson and tool around the hills of the city’s Little Italy, you’re sure to attract many stares — and inspire countless comments. At least that’s what happened this summer when Creative Director Bob Supina and I joined a morning tour. “That looks like fun; I want one, Mommy,” a little pigtailed girl screamed out as our group passed by her front yard; a truck driver slowed down and took in the scene before good-naturedly shouting out an unprintable expletive. Later, a middle-aged man stopped his car in the middle of an intersection, rolled down the window, and asked: “What the hell is that thing?”
That thing is a Segway Personal Transporter (PT), a two-wheeled electric vehicle with an impressive self-balancing system. Invented by entrepreneur Deam Kamen and first unveiled on Good Morning America in December 2001, the Segway PT has recently been touted in the news as an environmentally friendly way to combat sky-high gas prices (the units produce no emissions). “We’re hoping that people use them in place of short car trips. I use mine to go to the post office and the bank at lunch,” says Jack White, president of Segway of the Hudson Valley, a local distributor that sells the PTs for $5,350 and up out of his Dooley Square office. To drum up interest, White is also offering the first authorized Segway tour in New York State. Guided Segway Tours have already become popular in places like Disney World, Berlin, and Washington, D.C. as a fun and unique way to see the sites. And though you won’t be gliding by the likes of the White House while touring downtown Poughkeepsie, you may be surprised at just how much fun it is to glide past the architecturally important Poughkeepsie Post Office. Part quirky history lesson, part free-wheeling ride, this tour is a one-of-a-kind way to get outside and see the “Queen City of the Hudson” in a whole new light.
The tour kicks off with a short training session in Waryas Park on Poughkeepsie’s waterfront. First, White and his 23-year-old son Jason, vice president of the company, explain that the PT units are battery operated and can drive up to 24 miles on one charge. “That’s only about 10 cents in electricity you’re using,” says Jason. Next, they teach us how the PTs work: several gyroscopes and tilt sensors constantly monitor the rider’s center of gravity through Segway’s patented “dynamic stabilization” technology. If the rider leans forward, the unit moves forward; the same goes for moving backwards and to the left or right. There are no traditional brakes on a Segway PT, so to stop you lean back and squat, much like a beginning skier does. It sure sounds simple. Well, then again, skiing also sounds simple. But I’m here to tell you the good news: Riding a Segway really is easy. In fact, it took me less than five minutes to feel as though I had spent my entire life zipping around New York State on this strange contraption that bares a striking resemblance to an old-fashioned lawn mower. “If you can walk or stand, you can operate a PT,” says Jason. “You may not realize it, but you already have the skills. It’s intuitive.”
It’s hard to describe what riding a PT feels like. “It’s kind of like floating above the street,” says Bob. While it vaguely reminds me of my brief skateboarding stint as a preteen, the experience is more fluid — and very fun. A word about speed: This particular Segway PT (the i2) travels a maximum of 12.5 MPH (which is comparable to running a five-minute mile), but Jack had pre-set our PTs to reach a top speed of six MPH for our initial training (eight MPH once we were warmed up).
Once everyone on the tour was comfortable with their PT, we set out on our route. At the many scheduled stops, Jason keeps up a steady stream of chatter about the Segway and the surrounding sites. We learn about the different boathouses now found along the river’s shore, including those used by Marist and Vassar Colleges. Zooming up a mainly industrial street behind the river, everyone asks about agiant golf-ball type structure. “I call it the orb of doom,” replies Jason. “But it’s actually a natural gas storage tank. Every now and then they have to release gas and it shoots off big flames. It’s pretty cool.”
We stop outside the Poughkeepsie Post Office. On the National Register of Historic Places, this statuesque stone building is a beautiful example of Colonial Revival style architecture. (At some point, every Valleyite should go inside and check out the five WPA-era murals.) Several times we cruise right under the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge, which is currently being transformed into a pedestrian walkway and I’m shocked to realize how high it really is.
But what I find to be the most fun is scoping out a new neighborhood. Narrow roads wind their way through this hilly section of northwestern Poughkeepsie known as Mt. Carmel. Although many of the local Italian markets here have long been closed (this was one of the first permanent Italian communities established in the Mid-Hudson Valley,) a vibrant Italian quarter still exists and there is talk of trying to transform the region into more of a “Little Italy” destination spot. Our group chugs past the famous pastry place Café Aurora (winner of “Best Italian Bakery” this year) and several elderly Italian men give us the once over; We watch people working in the gardens in the many charming little Victorians that dot the area. But perhaps most interesting to me and Bob is that part of the time the tour takes us alongside what Jason refers to as the Poughkeepsie River. Excuse us? We’ve never heard of the Poughkeepsie River. But here it is, flowing along. (Later, Jason told us that he is not sure if it really is a river or just a drainage ditch that had been nicknamed the Poughkeepsie River by the locals. Our initial research has not yet turned up any firm answers.)
After our tour ended, our group stood around chatting excitedly about this exhilarating experience. In fact, my only complaint was that my feet hurt quite a bit (and yes, I had hat head from my helmet). Like everyone else, I momentarily imagined myself as the owner of my very own shiny new PT. Would I use it to scoot around Beacon to pick up milk? Would my husband don his helmet and drive the .75 miles to the train station in the morning? I’m not sure; after all, I’m a big fan of the old-fashioned sport of walking. “People say that using a Segway is lazy, that we should be encouraging walking,” says Jason.
“Well the Segway is not meant to replace walking. It’s not a cure-all for everything, but it does have a place.” In late July, New York State passed a law allowing Segways to be used on sidewalks, roadways, and bike paths outside of New York City. Still, it remains to be seen if Segway PTs catch on with the general public. “Up until now, most of the market for Segways has been commercial; law enforcement and security people have been using them,” says Jack. “We’re just now seeing the personal market evolve.” So who knows, maybe someday I’ll ditch my Toyota for this eco-friendly, two-wheeling take on transportation.
Segway of the Hudson Valley Tour of Poughkeepsie, $65; 845-485-7349, www.segwayofthehudsonvalley.com
Rule the Road
Who says Segway PTs are only for short trips? Not Josh Caldwell and Hunter Weeks. These two former college buddies ditched their soul-sucking corporate jobs to take a road trip from Seattle to Boston. The catch? Caldwell traveled 10 MPH on a Segway, while Weeks filmed him. The result was their 2007 documentary, 10 mph, which was called “amusingly offbeat” by the Boston Globe. Check out www.10mph.com for more information.